Archive for August, 2012

Education, Job Openings, and Unemployment in Metropolitan America

August 30, 2012

A new Brookings Institution study on metropolitan labor markets documents a gap between the job demand for those with higher education and the low supply of workers with that level of education. It also explains how this education gap might be limiting job creation. – M10420 This is further evidence to support the need to educate adults so that they are well prepared for higher education and so they can succeed once they enroll.

Findings from the Study

An analysis of labor markets using data on adult educational attainment, occupations, and job openings in the 100 largest metropolitan areas from January of 2006 to February of 2012 finds that:

  • Advertised job openings in large metropolitan areas require more education than all existing jobs, and more education than the average adult has attained. In the 100 largest metropolitan areas, 43 percent of job openings typically require at least a bachelor’s degree, but just 32 percent of adults 25 and older have earned one.
  • Metro areas vary considerably in the level of education required by job openings posted online. Roughly half of openings in San Jose, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. require
a bachelor’s degree or higher, while fewer than one-third of openings require a bachelor’s degree in metropolitan McAllen, TX and Youngstown, OH.
  • Unemployment rates are 2 percentage points higher in large metro areas with a short- age of educated workers relative to demand and have been consistently higher since before the recession. The gap between education demand and supply is small in Madison, Washington, Raleigh, and Minneapolis, and large in metro areas throughout California’s Central Valley. Both less educated and younger workers are much more likely to be working if they live in metropolitan areas with a smaller education gap.
  • Declines in industry demand and housing prices explain most of the recent cyclical increases in metropolitan unemployment rates, but education gaps explain most of the structural level of metropolitan unemployment over the past few years. Changes in house prices (prompting a reverse wealth effect) and industrial demand explain roughly three-quarters of the trend in unemployment rates across large metropolitan areas since the recession began. However, metropolitan education gaps explain roughly two-thirds of variation in the level of unemployment across metro areas, posing a longer-run challenge for many regional labor markets.
  • Metro areas with higher education gaps have experienced lower rates of job creation and job openings over the past few years. Educational attainment, overall and relative to existing demand, benefits metro areas by making workers more employable and firms more competitive and entrepreneurial—thus leading to more job openings for less educated workers. By contrast, education gaps do not appear to be related to employer difficulty in filling job openings in metro areas. In the short-term, unemployment rates are unlikely to come down to their pre-recession lev
els without improvements in housing markets and consumer demand. Yet high educational attainment is essential for the health of metropolitan labor markets before, during, and after recessions. Educational attainment makes workers more employable, creates demand for complementary less educated workers, and facilitates entrepreneurship. To better train less educated adults, non-profit organizations, community colleges, and governments can use detailed job openings data to align training curricula and certifiable skills with employer demand.

A quantum Leap for Distance Learning

August 25, 2012

In a May 2, 2012 New York Times article, “Harvard and M.I.T. Team Up to Offer Free Online Courses” Tamar Lewin reported on a significant development in world-scale online higher education courses. A new nonprofit partnership, known as edX, would be offering free online courses to the world. This partnership followed the launching in March, 2012 of M.I.T.’s first massive online course, Circuits and Electronics. 155,000 students, from 162 countries were enrolled, and some 7,000 finished the course and were entitled to a certificate of mastery and a grade, but no official credit. Similarly, edX courses will offer a certificate but, for now at least, not credit.

When questioned about the low online course completion rate in a WBUR Radio Boston interview on August 20th Anant Agrawal, the President of edX, and an M.I.T. researcher who taught the course, explained that many of those who enrolled were just experimenting; although this had been explained before enrollment, others, he said, found that it was a tough course, not at all watered down. He suggested that a different way of looking at the results was that there were 7,200 people from across the globe who had mastered a demanding course and for free. He mentioned that the quality of the results from the online course were comparable to a brick and mortar control group of 20 students. Agrawal pointed out that for M.I.T. to enroll 7,000 learners in this course as a 20-person brick and mortar class would take 30-40 years.

In the Circuits and Electronics class, asynchronous “video sequences” of from three to 15 minutes replaced brick and mortar lectures. These were “interleaved” with interactive exercises, a free online textbook, online interactive laboratories, and simulations (sophisticated online learning games).

Agrawal was asked how they solved the problem of responding to questions from 155,000 students with a staff of seven people, the same number typically available to 100 students enrolled in these classes.. He explained that from the beginning of the course students were told that part of their responsibility, if they understood the material, was to help those who didn’t by responding to questions in the online threaded discussions. Most students’ questions were answered by other students; Agrawal said that students often did not need the instructor.

EdX plans in September and October, 2012 to offer seven courses: three from M.I.T., two from Harvard, and two from the University of California at Berkeley. Subject areas include computer science and programming, public health research, and solid state chemistry in addition to the Circuits and Electronics Course. Enrollment appears to be going well with 5-10,000 students registering each week.

Agrawal was asked if he thought, for cost reasons and others, that online learning would eliminate campus-based learning. He said that online learning doesn’t replace the experience of campus-based learning, where there is face-to-face interaction with faculty and with other students. He thinks that “Online learning is a rising tide that will lift all boats, including campus-based teaching,” that online learning can create multiple, blended models with a campus experience and online courses, in colleges and universities as well as high schools across the world.

Is this an important new development in online learning? Agrawal thinks so, “that online learning will disrupt learning across the world, that this is the first time educators are applying modern-day computing techniques to education at scale, that education is the last frontier to be impacted by modern-day technology such as cloud computing, the Internet and online devices”, that this is the first time that web mobility has been applied in a concerted manner at a large scale to address important education needs. He also said that in the spring 2012 semester M.I.T. Circuits and Electronics course learners from many countries worked together across national boundaries on problem sets, that he sees this as a new multinational process of collaboration. He agreed that it is difficult to predict what the state of online courses will be in twenty or even ten years, but one possibility is a new world generation of bright, young people accustomed to collaborating with people from other countries to solve problems. Of one thing he said he is sure, that “Online learning technologies will disrupt education in a number of ways: scalability, efficiency and quality of learning.”

As the New York Times article pointed out, edX is not alone in offering these massively open online courses (MOOCS). In May Stanford, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Michigan announced a partnership with a new commercial company called Coursera, and Sebastian Thrun, a Stanford professor who taught his Artificial Intelligence course in the fall of 2011 to 160,000 students now will be offering six MOOC courses through his new company, Udacity.” Both edX and Coursera will also be offering humanities as well as science courses.


Lewin, Tamar. “Harvard and M.I.T. Team Up to Offer Free Online Courses” New York Times Retrieved 8.25.12 from or
WBUR Radio Boston August 20, 2012 Interview with Anant Agrawal Retrieved 8.25.12 from


Re-balancing Adult Basic Education

August 20, 2012

Is education an art, a science, or should it be a balance of both? If best when balanced, four recent trends have tipped U.S. education, including adult basic education, far over to the science side.  The four trends are:

1.   The reign of accountability.  Education policy makers and many other Americans now assume that a lack of learner progress they see in adult, Pre-K through 12th grade, and more recently even higher education, is primarily caused by poorly prepared, incompetent teachers. Their main point is that teachers need to be held accountable for their students’ performance on standardized tests. To assure better test performance, everything: curriculum, instruction, professional development and especially what teachers do in the classroom needs to align to standards upon which the tests are assumed to be based. The logic is that if the student performance on these tests is low, then it is the lack of alignment and especially poor teacher performance that needs to be changed.

2.   Lack of investment in high-quality professional development High quality, sustained professional development over time, professional development that not only teaches “evidence-based”[i] best practices, helps teachers to find, judge and use the results of others’ research, but also helps them become classroom researchers themselves has declined or disappeared. Like doctors, teachers should be expected to use the best evidence available in making decisions about helping students learn; like doctors, some of that evidence can come from dialogue and observation of patients (in this context, learners). 

3.   Advocacy of teaching based on empirical research instead of professional wisdom As I interpret the writings of many of those who advocate “evidence-based” practices, the sub-text is “if only teachers knew about the (abundant, easily found, gold standard) research evidence and used it, their practices would improve, and learners would achieve greater progress.” Although research has much to offer in some adult basic education content areas and approaches (reading, English language learning and learning disabilities come to mind) a single-minded, narrow emphasis on (often only “gold standard” experimental design) research urges teachers to focus on using findings from professional research done outside their classroom instead of closely observed evidence of their students in their classrooms. 

I am especially concerned that through a number of national and state policies, particularly those resulting from standardized high-stakes testing, our society has changed the role of teacher from an educator, someone who uses good judgment to help students learn (to meet their goals, to learn what is important and useful to know), to an implementer of “proven” practices that will help their students perform better on standardized tests. We have moved very far from the idea that teaching is an art or craft that involves good classroom problem solving and decision making based on close observation of individuals and how they learn.

4.   Lack of good adult education professional research. It is painful when I hear or read policy makers imply that “the answer” to improving classroom quality is getting teachers to use professional educational research, to base their practices solely on research, as if we had a large, solid body of valid, reliable, gold or silver standard adult education research for teachers to use. I believe that the U.S. Department of Education had to eventually abandon the adult education category in its What Works Clearinghouse [ ] because there wasn’t enough research that met its standards to include in this category.

When there is no good research upon which to base a treatment decision, what does a good doctor do? S/he looks for the best evidence that _is_ available. S/he may turn to professional colleagues for their opinions (clinical expertise or professional wisdom) and may — sometimes with information or perspectives provided by the patient — mull over, investigate, collect more information, formulate and test different hypotheses, in short conduct her own research. (I read an enlightening book a few years ago by Dr. Jerome Groopman, Harvard professor of medicine, AIDS and cancer researcher, and New Yorker staff writer, called How Doctors Think. In it he challenges doctors to think differently, especially to listen carefully to their patients’ views of what is wrong with them, that in some cases a logical deductive model based only on empirical evidence can miss important life and death information. Groopman’s approach, documented by case studies, has some relevance for teachers, too!)

We need to restore balance to education in the U.S., to trust teachers, to help them improve how they know what is working for particular students in their classrooms (formative assessment and teacher research/action research), and to include them in setting an agenda for research so that there are good answers to the persistent and difficult questions that they — as professional educators — see in their classrooms. We need to put “evidence-based” in its proper perspective: it is always useful to consider evidence from research, but other kinds of evidence, for example from a thoughtful teacher’s own practice, should also be considered. I would like to see the art of teaching get some attention…and respect.

[i]  The most common definition of Evidence-Based Practice (EBP) in medicine is that of EBP pioneer, David Sackett, according to whom EBP is “the conscientious, explicit and judicious use of current best evidence in making decisions about the care of the individual patient. It means integrating individual clinical expertise with the best available external clinical evidence from systematic research.”  Sackett, D. Evidence-based Medicine – What it is and what it isn’t. BMJ 1996; 312:71-72.

In Education the most widely-used definition is that of Grover Whitehurst, “The integration of professional wisdom with the best available empirical evidence in making decisions about how to deliver instruction.” Whitehurst, G.J. (2002, October). Evidence-based education. Presentation at the Student Achievement and School Accountability Conference.


Twelve Strategies to Make the Internet more Accessible to Adult Learners

August 20, 2012

[Revised August 19, 2012]

Below are twelve strategies that can make the Internet more accessible to adult learners:

1. Make sure your State Education Agency that is responsible for federal adult education funding allows ABE programs to pay for digital literacy courses with federal and state funding. I have heard that some states don’t allow it; I have also heard that they have misunderstood the intent of federal WIA Title II (adult ed) legislation. My understanding is that originally the prohibition was against using Title II funding for IT/ICT job training classes, which made sense. However, it does not make sense to prohibit using public adult basic education funding for basic digital literacy. As some visionary state ABE Directors argued over a decade ago, computer and Internet literacy is as important a basic skill as reading, writing and numeracy.

2. Take full advantage of currently-funded U.S. Department of Commerce Broadband Technology Opportunity (BTOP)-funded programs in your state that offer adults digital and Broadband literacy classes and tutorials for free. These are offered by libraries, community computing centers, community colleges and — in some states (Texas, Louisiana, California, Minnesota, New York and possibly others) also by ABE programs.

3. Take full advantage of the technology that students  _already do_ (or easily could) have. This implies:

  • Surveying students at least annually to find out what devices they have: cell phones, smart phones, tablets, home desktop computers (with internet access?), netbooks, laptops, etc.
  • Helping students know where and when Internet technology in their communities (e.g. libraries, community technology centers, public housing, etc,)
  • Researching low-cost options: there are programs that provide significantly discounted costs for Internet access in some parts of the country to low-income families. There are also community-based computer recycling/refurbishing centers that make desktop computers available inexpensively. In Boston, for example, there is a city-run program that provides free training to adults (usually for parents or other adult family members of Boston Public School children), and at the end offers each participant a new Netbook for $50. In neighboring Waltham, Massachusetts there is a computer re-cycling program that provides top-notch systems installed with office software for $145-195. The computers are donated by a large private higher education institution, The oldest systems are less than three years old.

4. Offer digital literacy programs that use trained volunteers (who work with students in small groups or one-on-one). Some corporations may provide employee volunteers to be digital literacy tutors. At least one corporation I know will also make small donations to programs that use those volunteers for a certain number of hours.

5. At the state level, require that publicly-funded ABE programs make digital literacy (computer and Internet basic competence and comfort) instruction available to all enrolled students who want it.

6. As part of digital literacy instruction, help learners to practice using online instruction that they can access for free from their home computer or smart phone if they have one, or from a public library.

7. As part of digital literacy, start with the applications that mean the most to students such as learning how to type, Skype-ing, e-mailing, completing online job applications, shopping online, taking family photos with a digital camera and attaching them to an email to send to other family or friends, or other applications that students have told you they need and want to know.

8. Remember that not all learning takes place in a classroom. (Mark Twain once said that his whole life was an education– except for the years in school) . We learn things from family and friends, from groups that we are already part of, from “hanging out” with others who are also interested in learning the sane things; if you can, help students to organize informal computer clubs where they can get comfortable with computers, and other web-accessible devices.

9. Identify free or very inexpensive online education resources and make  a list of them available to learners as shareable bookmarks
(If you are looking for a list of free online learning resources to start with, here’s one I developed, the Literacy List :

10. Have teachers or volunteer tutors sit down with learners and a list such as The Literacy List, or one you make, and through a process of identifying their goals, guide them to two or three good free learning resources that they can use to get started. Help them to use each one well. At first, it may be a slow process of getting comfortable with doing any kind of online learning but, once comfortable, the skills of using one interface are often transferable to using another application. The goal should be to help learners get comfortable and confident in using the Internet for online learning.

11. Integrate word processing, spreadsheets, Internet information searching, and online learning into as many face-to-face classes as possible.

12. Try not to let your own or other teachers’ fears about using technology with students be misunderstood as students’ fears. Most adult learners want to be a part of our 21st century technology-using culture. Get support yourself, or support other teachers, in overcoming these fears through: regular daily access to a computer; technology training followed by ample opportunity to practice the skills learned, and good tech support.